FALL 2007

Deconstructing This Self: One Black Woman’s Exploration of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Process of Personal Reclamation

Annette Williams


To reiterate, the current exploration will look at socio-historical and cultural preconditions to childhood sexual abuse as well as socio-historical and cultural preconditions to internalization of the oppression of childhood sexual abuse especially as a black woman. My own seeking out of this morass is also explored.

The personal relevance of this process is found in the following words of a research participant addressing internalized oppression: “Since I’ve committed my life to social change, the more that I can release and work through . . . then the more powerful I will be.” (24) Although I have felt a call to service from a young age, what my service in the world would look like has never been explicitly clear. The details of the vision are still clarifying, but the core value of championing the humanity of children and women prevails.

At this point I have come to embrace the dialectic between personal and social transformation as reflected above by Moustakas when he says that personal questions have social significance. Rosenwasser, who researched internalized oppression, states that her work is in part based on “Mathias Finger’s ‘new paradigm for social action’ that induces ‘a process of personal transformation that inevitably will influence social, cultural and political life.’” (25)

Just as the developmentally stunting and painful effects of childhood sexual abuse need to be eradicated from one’s psyche, the reality of childhood sexual abuse needs to be expunged from society. Childhood sexual abuse is described as “a bodily violation of extreme humiliation and devastation. . . . It silences our voices, numbs our bodies, warps our thinking, and closes our hearts.” (26) It is also an epidemic.

In 1994 Bass and Davis reported that “one out of three girls and one out of seven boys are sexually abused by the time they reach the age of eighteen.” (27) Statistics largely compiled from the 2000 National Center for Victims of Crime Report chillingly inform us that one-third of sexual assault victims are under the age of 12, with 43% of that number being 6 or younger. In addition, 83% of sexually abused boys are under the age of 12, and it is estimated by experts in the field that between 90% and 95% of sexual abuse is never reported to the police. (28) More recent statistics continue to paint a grim picture. In 2004 there were 84,398 substantiated cases of child sexual abuse. (29)

The effects of sexual abuse suffered in childhood are far-reaching. Women who were sexually abused as children frequently engage in self-destructive behaviors, including self-mutilation and suicide. “In clinical outpatient samples, an estimated 50% to 60% of women with sexual abuse histories have attempted suicide, compared to 23% to 34% of women without sexual abuse histories.” (30) The same article points out that when the abuse is kept secret, when the child does not tell, this contributes to self-blame. Self-blame has been shown concomitant with shame, low self-esteem, substance abuse, feelings of alienation, as well as self-destructive behaviors. (31)

As I awaken to the ability to face, the courage to verbalize, and the capacity to heal the personal dysfunctions attendant to childhood sexual abuse, hopefully my process will be of service to other women who want to embark on a similar journey. Also, as I clear my psychic and emotional space, I hope to become a strong vessel able to hold the space for others as they work to face, verbalize, and heal from childhood sexual abuse and encounter self-transformation.

Contributing Factors to Childhood Sexual Abuse and the Internalization of Oppression

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent by Elaine Pagels assists in understanding modern repressive attitudes towards sexuality and the feminine. Grounded in biblical scholarship, this book is an exploration of the Genesis creation myth as interpreted in the first four centuries of the Christian church’s existence. The Gnostics’ interpretation of the creation story as an allegory that concerns the process of spiritual self-discovery and depicts “Eve – or the feminine spiritual power she represented – as the source of spiritual awakening” (32) was very different from the literal orthodox interpretation. One telling example is what Tertullian, a second century church leader, had to say of women:

“You are the devil’s gateway. . . . you are she who persuaded him whom the devil did not dare attack. . . . Do you not know that every one of you is an Eve? The sentence of God on your sex lives on in this age: the guilt, of necessity, lives on too.” (33)

Although some voices within the early church might have been more moderate than others – a paramount example being the young Bishop Julian’s arguments against the notion of original sin championed by the powerful Augustine in the early fifth century (34) – patriarchy was uniform. The patriarchy of the Christian Church considered the natural and God-given place of woman as being subservient to man.

Believed to be inaccurately attributed to Paul, but nonetheless reflecting his apparent misogyny, 1 Timothy expresses a view of women held today by fundamentalists in many areas of the world. Women are to “learn in silence and submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. . . . Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” (35)

1 Timothy continues its discourse, directing the following to men: “He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful.” (36) This reading is from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The reading in my personal King James Version of the Bible is even more harsh, “One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity.” (37) Women and children thus fall under the sanctioned dominion of men. This gospel has been translated into the vernacular with sayings such as: a man’s home is his castle; or, man is the king of his castle, with all rights and privileges of his gender.

My father is a Jehovah’s Witness. This group is a conservative Christian religious organization that adheres to a literal interpretation of the bible. Two teachings from childhood reverberate in my consciousness: spare the rod, spoil the child; children are seen and not heard. Corporal discipline is often used to help ensure that children walk a path pleasing to Jehovah. The place of the wife and children in the family structure is clearly delineated within the religion. The husband/father is the undisputed head of his household. Christian orthodoxy, unable to see the divine as immanent within the individual and seeing woman as a chalice of evil, responsible for the downfall of man and all attendant misery, sees control and repression of woman as deserved and just.

If women and the feminine are generally disparaged and male superiority is intoned by religious patriarchy, black women are subject to “a complex set of stereotypes that deny Black humanity in order to rationalize white supremacy.” (38) Within its pages, Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts looks at stereotypes of black female sexuality. In particular she describes how these stereotypes were used and are continually used to justify sexual exploitation of black women from slavery to the present day. Harkening back to Eve, the “construct of the licentious temptress served to justify white men’s sexual abuse of Black women.” (39)

During slavery, black women were sexually exploited as broodmares. Children were sent to work in the fields by age eleven and many before age seven. (40) Miscegenation did not spare the child the toils of slavery. Women who did not reproduce were “exposed to every form of privation and affliction.” (41)

“The rape of slave women by their masters was primarily a weapon of terror that reinforced white’s domination over their human property.” Rape of a slave was not considered a crime. Moreover there existed “the prevailing belief among whites that Black women could not be raped because they were naturally lascivious.” (42)

Black females were vulnerable to sexual exploitation early in life. Black Episcopalian minister Alexander Crummel wrote the following in 1881:

In her girlhood all the delicate tenderness of her sex has been rudely outraged…. No chance was given her for delicate reserve or tender modesty. From her childhood she was the doomed victim of the grossest passion. All the virtues of her sex were utterly ignored. (43)

In her essays bell hooks explores contemporary manifestations of the stereotypes and exploitation of black female sexuality. One very interesting manifestation is the phenomenon of white college males’ desire to have sex with others, i.e. non-white females. This act of having sex with others is envisioned by the young men as self-altering and thus as a rite of passage or “ritual of transcendence.” In her analysis hooks’ asserts, “the presence of the Other, the body of the Other, was seen as existing to serve the ends of white male desires.” (44)